My post everything carbohydrate blitz

by Cara McDonough

Let me state first, that I know the importance of perspective during my "tough times." With that in mind, I worried, somewhat jokingly, but for real also, about how I'd feel emotionally after running my first marathon, an event which occurred two days before the presidential election. I'd spent hours and hours during the weeks prior running, obviously, but devouring political coverage, as well. What would happen once such time-consuming, exhausting exercise was no longer a necessity? Once the build up was over and we'd elected the first woman president? I'd be relieved on both counts, of course, but perhaps a little dejected too. Sometimes that happens when the thing you've been looking forward to for months is finally over. 

The feelings I had after the marathon are easy to explain. I was elated from mile 25, summoning strength that had eluded me in the previous four miles, heading for Columbus Circle and that last .2, urging myself to look at and remember the towering buildings and screaming crowds. "You did it, you did it, you did it," I thought as I crossed the finish and was immediately wrapped in a shiny silver blanket and handed a bag of food by the greatest volunteers on planet Earth. I was happy, and drained and I couldn't walk down the stairs normally for a week. 

After the election? Well. You know. YOU KNOW HOW THAT FELT. At first, I couldn't believe it, as in I went to bed that night certain that Donald Trump had not actually won, that I'd awake to the discovery of some hidden numbers, or however the hell voting works, and it would all be ok. But I got up and turned on the news to witness disbelief and early analysis. We were all wrong. I received wordless hugs at work and read through all the outrage and countless calls to action on social media. I was so overwhelmed that I ignored most. Should I protest? Wear a safety pin? I needed to figure it out. I was tired, though. My body and my soul, too. 

The obvious answer, the only option, was food. With no athletic endurance test or exciting election night on the horizon - no immediate goals at all, really - I snacked myself into a protective comfort zone. Except it wasn't comfort, exactly, because it didn't make me feel good. It was simply an allowance I felt I deserved, a surrender. I bought Trader Joe's cookies and ate two or three secretly in the kitchen while forcing carrots and hummus on the kids at the dining room table. I found a near-empty tub of vanilla ice cream in the freezer one afternoon while my youngest was napping, added Hershey's kisses and ate it straight from the container. I bought a six-pack of Maruchan ramen noodles for a recipe I was bringing to a party (guys, there's a salad you can make) and then ate them for lunch like four days in a row. I finished mac and cheese out of the pot, while it was still on the stove, saving myself the chore of storing it for later. 

I know, no huge sin. But I'd been taking care of myself carefully in the weeks leading up to the marathon and this was a descent. I didn't feel guilty about it; I felt like perhaps our broken country as a whole deserved it. But was aware it had to stop at some point, because I needed energy to take care of my children, work and have rational discussions, and instead was feeling on the constant precipice of a sugar crash.  

I don't have anything brave or noteworthy to say about the election that has not already been said. There are far more talented writers covering that subject in eloquent and meaningful ways and although I don't have the time for all the pieces I want to read, I'm trying, and sharing those I find most inspiring. I do know this: just after the election I heard from a conservative friend I'd made via email after he commented on a gun control piece I'd written, and he earnestly asked me how I was feeling, if I was ok, and it felt like an incredibly meaningful conversation. I knew immediately that I needed more of that. 

Then, on Thanksgiving I participated in a turkey trot in Maine where we were spending the holiday, the first time I'd hit the pavement since New York. It felt great so I went for a run again three days later. 

What I learned during my experimental break from self control is that I want it back. That post-marathon, and witnessing this polical upheaval that I tend to obsess over but can't quite navigate, deliberation, rather than reaction, feels like the correct choice. Reading the newspaper slowly on a Sunday morning. Planned exercise and long walks with our new dog. Scheduling get-togethers and booking travel to ensure we see friends and family. Reading a few pages of "Ulysses" every time I feel the burning need to scan Twitter (but really, I'M GOING TO finish it this time). 

The other day I was putting some things away in our kitchen cupboard when a sesame stick - a beloved snack in this household -  fell from its packaging and bounced invitingly onto the countertop. My hand went for it involuntarily, grasping that tiny weight, anticipating its salty crunchiness. I could eat it. I could eat all of them, then call the afternoon a wrap.

The definition of "difficult" has such range. Telling Nora that Hillary didn't win on the morning of November 9; running for five hours straight. But this, too. I paused, the savory morsel resting in my palm, remembering that I retain the right and ability to make so many decisions that affect myself and others. And I put it back. 

Parenting win, almost

by Cara McDonough

I was telling friends the other day that these recent months - training for the marathon, working, life in general with three kids - have comprised an exhausting "but in a good way" period of my life. 

When I look back on this time, I'm going to remember an intensity that I think I have actually been longing for, although, in attaining it, what I now long for is a week or two in a spa that does not allow children or exercise. So much running, you guys. Waking up before sunrise to get in 5 or 8 or 10 miles then whipping off drenched running clothes to take a shower before just making it to school drop-off. Working a few hours before shifting into afterschool mode, then dinner and then I can barely stay awake. 

As the miles have ticked upward my physical exhaustion has increased. It's a real kind of fatigue that feels better than the harried kind that comes from too many parental duties I don't know how to handle. That's more what I've felt in the past and I prefer this: leg aches and climbing into bed devoid of all concerns except for wondering how fast I can get under the covers. SUPER fast, it turns out. 

J and I have lamented lately that there is not much time for either of us to relax, although it seems we are both experienced enough adults at this point to realize that relaxation will return and, if it doesn't, we can reconfigure our schedules to make it so. For now, sleep is the relaxing part and we cherish the precious hours to do just that. Before we know it, Gabriel's coming in around 6:15 a.m. to inform us that he has to go to the bathroom, despite the fact that we have told him one or two hundred times that this is not a necessary announcement. Just go, buddy. 

When I was talking to my friends about this being a busy but good period, what I meant was that instead of saying how busy I am and then second-guessing how busy I am really, as I have in the past, this is the real deal. My hours are occupied with things that for the most part are very fulfilling. Even my social media usage - obsessing over Twitter to stay abreast of this circus of a political season, for instance - seems slightly less mindless lately. 

(If in this post I seem overly-impressed with myself please note that we are mere weeks away from the onset of winter and I will be updating you with plenty of complaining then, PLENTY).

Yesterday I was home with Gabe and Aidy awaiting Nora's bus. I'd woken up incredibly early to get a long run in that I didn't have time to do this weekend, and it wasn't the most brilliant plan. Although it's sometimes helpful to schedule early runs and I generally like exercising in the morning, heading out in the dark before coffee seems totally barbaric. I survive those runs, but I don't enjoy them very much. And this one, I hated. 

I was so physically tired by 2 o'clock that I had no choice but to lie on the couch for a few minutes. Gabe, who can be intolerably cranky after school, despite the fact that his kindergarten teacher says he's perfect in the classroom, was worked up about some art project gone awry and Aidy was hungry, so I set her up with a snack at the dining room table and somehow convinced Gabe to calm down and tell me about his day. There'd been a pumpkin festival at school and he and his classmates had received a basket of knick-knacks. "Come tell me about all this stuff!"

I laid back on the couch. I felt my thoughts melt into a sweet nonsensical mish-mash and then drifted off for a minute or two; enough to feel just a modicum of sleep's restorative powers and not enough to get arrested for child neglect (I don't think, what, exactly are the laws?)

When I awoke I found Gabe quietly placing a band-aid on my right foot. I've escaped some of the more dire side effects of marathon training but on my last few runs I developed blisters on both feet and am having a hard time getting the remaining wounds to heal since I have to keep engaging in the offending repetitive motion. I keep band-aids everywhere and there was a small pile on the ottoman that afternoon. 

He was addressing the worst of the spots - not terrible or too painful but clearly in need of some attention - and when I opened my eyes to find his little hands carefully smoothing the bandage, I was filled with such appreciation and pure love that I couldn't help but sit up and give him a tight hug. He hadn't woken me to express his annoyance that I was not paying attention to his new treasures! He had, instead, taken care of me

He didn't like the outpouring of positive attention, he never does. He pushed me away and shook his head, unwilling to accept my perhaps overzealous affection. But I couldn't help texting J to tell him that I'd just experienced a memorable parenting moment. In our sea of scheduling and homework help, a quiet success. A few seconds of pure relaxed joy in a lifestyle that's been eluding just that. 

"Well," I wrote to him a few beats later, "a great parenting moment except for falling asleep while taking care of my children." Except for that. But everyone was still alive and I had recovered just enough to haul myself off the sofa and carry on through our unyielding routine. It was only hours until bedtime, anyway, which, I had already decided, would be embarassingly, gloriously early. 

Marathon update part three

by Cara McDonough

I promised monthly updates on my training, I know, and then I skipped over July and August. The real reason is more along the lines of: I forgot to do it. But I think at this point I can also say that I didn't have time to do it. Because of all the running. And watching "Stranger Things" 

The NYC marathon is now less than two months away and since I last wrote about my training, I've gone through quite a few stages in the process. I'm not a fast runner and probably never will be, but as the mileage-per-week increased throughout the summer I started to get a little quicker and more confident. I ran a ten-mile race in August and felt great the whole time, something I've never accomplished in any of the races I've completed. There's usually a moment or two, or 100, where I want to die. But this time I really enjoyed it. I made a buddy around mile six who was also in training for NYC, and chatting with her helped those latter miles click by. At mile nine, my very fast friend Tom (HI TOM!) who had somehow finished the race like two hours before me - I think I've got the math right on that - ran with us for awhile, cheering the whole way. And I was like, "Yes! This is why people get into this! The camaraderie and physical fitness! Running is the BEST!"

Cut to later that month when I was attending the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (an amazing experience that deserves its very own post). The campus is nestled in the gorgeous mountans of Vermont, which meant that running in any direction involved long, intense hills. There was also a lot of wilderness, which was excellent for channeling Thoreau but bad for my fear of bears and murderers. I had some unforgettable talks with some wonderful new friends on those runs, but jogging up mountains was tiring after about a quarter mile. This caused me to reconsider the newfound strength I thought I'd gained. Then there were a couple mornings where I was supposed to go four miles and I went about two because I swear to you there was an animal in a bush that could have killed me

So I was a little behind when I got home. No big deal, I thought. I completed a 12-mile run that Sunday, however, which you could call "contemplative" in its nature if you were being poetic, or "a hot and hellish slog" if you were being realistic.

I had to do 13 the following weekend and J mapped out a nice course that took me along the shoreline. I felt really good for the first seven miles. The last six were rough. It was, once again, a sweltering day and I should have refilled my water bottle sooner than I did, got pretty thirsty and experienced a rather depressing half hour at a slow shuffle with sweat and sunscreen running into my eyes, feeling like I was on some kind of desert vision quest; that my exhaustion, if I were lucky, might morph into a mystical experience with mirages and a shaman to guide me home. Instead I made it to a local seafood take-out counter and got a bottle of water. I finished but was starting to reconsider the idea of running for fun. For FUN. Who are these idiots?

Also! When would it be the part where I get to eat a lot of cupcakes without repercussions? And the part where I start looking like a super athlete? I thought I was going to be able to brag about my toenails falling off, at least, but they are still there. 

I think – as with so many challenges – I kept wondering when the big payoff would arrive, ignoring the steady rate of improvement. I'm not an athlete in my normal life (to the dear friends who are remarking that this is an understatement I can TOTALLY HEAR YOU) and the simple fact that I could go these distances without a hospital visit was a sure sign that I was doing alright. started getting better. In my most recent weeks of training, I’ve had some strange thoughts, indicative of a new mindset, one that I think is necessary to endure this insanity. Last weekend I ran a half-marathon in Maine, joking when I signed up, “This course is well-marked, right? Because I could get lost!” The kind people in charge assured me it was. Still, most of the participants went the wrong way about twenty minutes in. This was a hilarious and and bonding moment for all of us, and we were eventually redirected, but upon arriving at the “Mile 3” signpost, a fellow runner informed us all that her GPS had us at five miles. Five! Not three. Once the crowd had thinned out and I found myself running solo, enjoying woodsy enclaves interspersed with inlet views, I thought, without even remotely the proper amount of alarm, "I guess I’m doing 15 miles today.” I just kept on running, including an upbeat stretch near the end when I decided to put in my earphones for awhile and listen to the new pop music I'd been introduced to at a recent family wedding (THANK YOU MEGAN AND STEVE AND JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE! Plus: future post coming on my lack of knowing the new Macklemore like the rest of America.) 

And then, just the other morning, having set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. but, when the unholy hour arrived, regarding the clock with pure menace and not getting out of bed at all, I started too late for that day’s prescribed seven-mile run. I’d never make it back in time to help out with the kids’ first day of school if I took it easy. “Ok,” I thought,“I’ll just have to run this seven miles fast." What? 

Maybe I don't feel like a long distance runner in the way I thought I would, but the obvious fact surfacing here is that I can now run long distances. These persistent actions have yielded the correct outcome and despite the fact that I did not believe it possible during the last hour of that 13-mile seaside death jaunt, it seems that, come November, I will be able to run 26 miles. 

It's a less glorious getting-there than I'd envisioned, but I am finally enjoying the sneakiness of this progress, the way these newfound habits have crept into my daily routine, sometimes as boring and all-important as the rest of it. 

Before the Maine half-marathon-actually-15-miler, my father, one of the most accomplished people I know, still constantly worried about his daughter's well-being and confounded by the lunacy of my recent endeavors, gave me this advice: "Remember, you can quit anytime. You don't have to prove anything to anyone."

I'm a fan, as you know, of completing goals, but am also averse to the cheerfully trite aphorisms that fitness-related challanges can inspire. I liked my father's advice far better, and perhaps that's where I'll find my understated glory: that along these stretches of rugged New England coast and on the rocky paths of forests full of imagined predators, bumbling along the asphalt alone with my thoughts, engaged in podcasts or listening to music that makes me feel slightly foolish, I am reminded more often than I'd like to admit that I can quit.

Then I walk a few strides. Think about the most mundane and beautiful rewards, like an ice-cold Gatordade. And keep going. 

Marathon update part two

by Cara McDonough

And here's what I wrote in June when I was beginning to understand. 

June 29, 2016

Last time I wrote, running a marathon was kind of an abstract idea. Like, "Ok, you're gonna run 26 miles several months from now. NO PROBLEM!" But since then I've started some preliminary training, and remembered that a 20 minute run feels a lot different than an hour long run...that running two miles is much less taxing than running seven...and that preparing to run 26 miles is a pretty big deal. 

The good news is that so far, making this commitment, scheduling runs and getting out there feels really good. 

You know how it goes. It's usually easier NOT to do something. A five-mile-run vs. coffee while watching more news coverage of the 2016 political circus? I'll take the latter.  

But I can't, because I've committed to this thing, and while I can wing it with certain activities (pretending I'm into crafting, for instance, or that I know the rules of tennis) I can't wing running a marathon. I've got to put the miles in first. 

It's hard to get out the door, especially with all my responsibilities at home. Once I do, though, it feels great. Maybe not at first, but a mile or so in I get my stride. I remember that choosing to work towards this feels sooooooo incredibly worth it. 

As you know, one of the reasons this whole process means so much is because I'm raising money for the American Cancer Society in memory of my Uncle Jimmy. As of today I'm at nearly half my goal of $3,200! My plan is to achieve that goal by August, and keep fundraising from there. 

To those of you who have donated so far: You're amazing! Thank you SO MUCH! 

To those of you who haven't and are able, please know that your donation means the world to me, and helps the ACS with all the incredible, life-changing work that they do. 

You can visit my fundraising page and make a donation here. 

Thanks for listening, for donating and for supporting me. More to come in July, when I will update you on the new running gear I plan to buy, such as one of those cool armbands for my iPhone, and possibly some kind of fanny pack. 

Marathon update part one (looking back...)

by Cara McDonough

A few months ago I began updating friends and family about my marathon training and fundraising via email, and it has occurred to me that collecting those emails here on my blog would be a fun way to remember the debilitat - um, the magic. 

So here's the first email I wrote back in May, when I was just a naive young thing. 

May 20, 2016

Well, I've begun...I guess you could call this the pre-pre part of my training for the NYC Marathon on November 6, which will begin for real with an 18-week program starting in July. 

This is the part where I'm still able to wake up on a morning when I've planned a run, and, feeling not quite up to it, decide that drinking coffee in bed would be a far superior thing to do. It is pretty great, but on the early mornings I do nudge myself into my sneakers and out the door, I never regret it. 

Right now I'm just trying to get running back into my routine; I'm hoping to begin marathon training with a solid 15 miles or more per week and that's not exactly where I am right now. You could call where I am right now something like: runs-whevever-she-feels-like-it-and-often-to-get-out-of-the-house-away-from-loud-children. But you've gotta start somewhere, right?

As many of you know, I'm running this marathon as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. I'm still working on getting the $3,200 mininum I need to qualify for guaranteed entry to the race. Thanks so much to those of you who have donated already! Your generosity has gotten me off to a great start. 

If you haven't donated yet, and can manage even a small amount towards my goal, I'd be incredibly appreciative! Click here to link to my personal fundraising page where you can do just that!

Beyond the most important reason - supporting the ACS and the incredible, life-changing work they do for people with cancer - you're helping me a marathon! Which, insane as it might be, is a personal goal of mine this year. 

I'll be sending out just one email a month to ask for donations. So this is it for May, I promise!

And here's one last thought: 

One of the reasons I like running so much is that it's a great time to think. Because I'm running this race for the ACS, and in memory of my Uncle Jimmy, I think about him a lot during my runs, and about his family, my amazing cousin Meredith and her amazing mom, my Aunt Jan. 

When I think about them, it sincerely brings an extra bounce to my step. I have to be careful when this happens, because I am exceedingly clumsy and have fallen down during runs due to nothing more than, say, a small chip of asphalt that gets underfoot. 

But running for my Uncle Jimmy really does makes me happy, and brings so much meaning to this whole thing. This is important, because, 26 miles is...far. 

Inconcievably, though, I can't wait.